Applying Traditional Dakota Values in a Middle School Math Classroom

ErichThis post is was written by Dr. Erich Longie, Senior Cultural Consultant for 7 Generation Games. Erich is part of the founding team of 7 Generation Games and oversees our cultural staff to ensure all cultural content is vetted and historically and culturally accurate. He is a long-time educator – having taught at every level from elementary school to college – and an enrolled member of the Spirit Lake Dakota.

Several years ago my business associate, AnnMaria, and I started a business we called Spirit Lake Consulting (SLC). We wrote several grants that were funded. When these grants were coming to the end she said to me, “We’ve written grants on what I am interested in, why don’t we write the next grant on what you are interested in?”

Having been involved in tribal politics for many years, I had seen dozens of instances when the absence of courage, honesty, perseverance and generosity basically ruined the lives of many tribal members. So, when AnnMaria offered to write the next grant on something I was interested in I told her, “Let’s write a grant about Dakota values.”

The ideas about how practicing our Dakota values can improve the lives of us Indians was not new to me. I had attended dozens of meetings with other tribal members and members of other tribes over the years. I had hundreds of conversations with other Indians, and we often talked about returning to our traditional lifestyle and to traditional leadership to address every problem from education to tribal government. Every Indian I met was proud of his or her heritage.

How great would it be if our leaders were honest and courageously made the right decision all the time? Similarly, what if every tribal worker went to work every day — on time — and did an honest day’s work? The amount of fighting and politicking would greatly diminish. Everyone would be happier.

I jumped at the chance to get paid to research this subject that I had always found interesting. Was it possible, by reintroducing all our traditional values through courses and workshops, to improve the standard of living on Indian Reservations?

I thought it was.

I thought if I introduced a curriculum about Dakota values that gave people an alternative to the unethical behavior so common today that everyone would want to attend our workshops, learn how to live by our traditional values and our reservation would be a better place to live. Right?

Well, that is not exactly what happened. I wrote five ethics courses: Each addressed a different level in the workplace, from the worker to the tribal council. The 100 or so tribal members who attended my courses all agreed that every tribal worker — especially boards, committee and council members — should take at least one of my courses. I approached tribal leaders and program managers. They all agreed my courses were dearly needed, but most of them found a reason why they couldn’t attend them

What does this have to do with math?

Most Native American students do not do very well in math, as test scores indicate. To be honest, most tribal schools do not make AYP (Average Yearly Progress). However, of the core subjects, math appears to be particularly hard for most Native American students to master.

To master math skills requires a lot of hard work. For students whose cultural and environmental background may not be conducive to learning, they need all the right kind of encouragement they can get. A teacher who has an appreciation and a little understanding of our culture and values will be able to use those values, or one of those values, to motive our students to do better in math.

In my opinion, math is probably the easiest subject to teach and to learn. Math is an absolute. The answer to 2 + 2 will always be 4, and the answer to 9 X 9 will always be 81. Simply memorizing these basic math facts can increase a child’s overall self-confidence and general academic performance. However, memorization requires repetition – and repetition can be boring.

One traditional value in particular is very helpful when it come to learning math. This value is perseverance.

In the English language, the definition of perseverance is “ steady persistence in a course of action, a purpose, a state, etc., especially in spite of difficulties, obstacles, or discouragement.”

For an Indian, perseverance means surviving against all odds. It means surviving poverty, surviving the boarding school, surviving the loss of language and identity.

A teacher who is familiar with the Dakota values of perseverance will be able to encourage his or her students to work hard, to not quit, just like their ancestors didn’t quit when they were removed from their homeland and had to overcome many, many hardships to survive.